Though Rampage may be the first contemporary video game adaptation whose source material I’m actually familiar with, it’s simultaneously a relief and disappointment that Brad Peyton’s film so faintly resembles the anachronistic Midway charmer that inspired it. Peyton and star Dwayne Johnson, working together for a third time after Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas, possess a remarkable aptitude, and sure seem to have a lot of fun inflicting widespread property damage on major cities. But in reimagining the game’s delightfully goofy, Godzilla-lite premise into a semi-serious take on corporate greed, human-animal friendships and, again, widespread property damage, the duo undermines much of the fun to be had, while also un-memorably shoe-horning their film into the growing ranks of movies about oversized animals and the people, places and things that they love to destroy.
Johnson plays Davis Okoye, a primatologist and former soldier who works with apes at a San Diego animal sanctuary. When his prize specimen, an albino gorilla named George (Jason Liles), comes into contact with a toxic canister carrying a pathogen that amplifies animal strength, speed and aggression, Davis must fend off authorities eager to put George down while searching for a cure. Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomi Harris), who developed the pathogen for the Energyne corporation before its sibling owners Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy) stole the formula and had her terminated, volunteers to help Davis with George, but they soon discover that they have bigger problems – in particular, a giant wolf that’s combing the Wyoming countryside.
Despite their expertise with both animals and the genetic engineering that’s transformed ordinary animals into unstoppable killing machines, the duo is detained by Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a government agent determined to stop the renegade beasts at all costs. But when the Wydens decide to summon the animals for testing at their headquarters in Chicago, Davis and Kate are forced to flee the relative safety of their military captors and put themselves in the path of George and his traveling companion with the hopes of implementing a cure and stopping them from reducing the city and its population to rubble.
Watching the considerable thought that went into legitimizing Rampage’s premise, it’s hard to know whether we know too much or not enough about the actual science – or at least our cinematic understanding of it – when it comes to big-screen science fiction. Jurassic World was probably the worst offender in this regard with its endless “we used THIS reptile’s DNA which is why the blah-blah-saur can do THAT” exposition, but for a movie like this, all we really need to know is that good animals took some sort of crazy serum and now they’re big and angry; the script’s four authors, including Carlton Cuse (Lost, The Strain), devotes way more energy than they – or we – need trying to explain why a 500-pound albino gorilla doubles in size overnight, and why later, a wolf develops porcupine-like quills and “wings” like a 200-foot-long flying squirrel. It’s bad enough that Caldwell’s program has a really stupid-sounding (but apparently real) acronym – “CRISPR” – but there is literally no need for anyone other than maybe a virologist to use the word “pathogen” as much as it is uttered by the characters in this film.
Thankfully, the movie makes some smart enough choices with its characters that they mostly overshadow the dumb ones. Yes, it’s true that each chapter of the film seems to be demarcated by a new authority figure who towers over his or her predecessors and despite earnest pleas refuses to listen to the advice of the experts and survivors in their custody. But even if as its rich-bitch villain Akerman is chewing scenery like her life – and the believability of her kinda awful co-star Lacy’s performance – depends upon it, the remainder of the principals are sufficiently nuanced, or at least well-drawn, to keep them from being completely one dimensional.
Johnson, as always, is bigger than life, but he knows how best to use vulnerability to his advantage, especially with regard to George and Davis’ sincere concern for his well-being. Harris fares slightly less well as a repository for expositional gibberish, but one also supposes that when you’re in the passenger seat next to The Rock, it’s best just to enjoy the ride. Morgan, meanwhile, indulges in his character’s silly cowboy pretenses, but never reduces Russell to pure caricature, even as supporting turns from the likes of Joe Manganiello, Marley Shelton and Will Yun Lee make us eager for their characters to have more to do than fret, freak out or bark orders in the background of Johnson’s ‘A’ story.
As for the CGI animals, Peyton gives them plenty of opportunities to wreak havoc, although at least one or two of those sequences feels better in conception than execution: though the large-scale destruction is all masterfully rendered – and it must be noted, brutally violent for a PG-13 movie – he like many other modern filmmakers gets too close to the action, mistaking incomprehensibility for claustrophobia, and seems either unaware of or uninterested in even the basic physics of gravity, falling objects, and so on. Worst of all, Peyton barely if at all references the game upon which it was based, even as an Easter egg for nerds like yours truly; but then again, that game itself was kind of a Frankensteinian hybrid of old-school monster movies, making this adaptation’s departures feel like some sort of feeble and unsuccessful full-circle gesture to liberate its ideas from a derivative foundation.
Of course, in a context where Kong and Godzilla and who knows who else is regularly using major international cities as a wrestling ring on the big screen, this showdown somehow feels even more unoriginal than if it were just an overpowered, underwhelming game adaptation. But between its top-notch visual effects and the indefatigable charisma of the only man who can dwarf not one but three giant mutated animals, Rampage provides so much destruction that audiences indisputably get their money’s worth, even if afterward they’ll probably feel as leveled as the cities on screen.